Typha latifolia – Cattail

CattailTypha latifolia

Typha = tee-fa, from Gr. “of the bog”;

latifolia = lah-tee-fo-lee-a, “broad-leaved”;

Identification: Cattails are tall marsh (aquatic) herbs, growing up to 3 m. and have a coarse creeping rootstock. The flowers are very small, on conspicuous mace-like flower-spikes. The leaves are long, linear, upright, flat and sheathed. The seeds are borne in minute achenes on slender stalks that are scattered in fluffy masses in late summer.

Distribution & Habitat: This plant is very common in marshes and shallow water throughout the area.

Preparation & Uses: This plant has so many diverse uses that it is hard to know where to begin. Two of the best descriptions of this plant I`ve heard are Schofield`s “One-stop Shopping center“ or “Supermarket of the swamp”.

Among the edible uses, the young shoots can be pulled loose from the rootstock. The outer leaves peeled away, and the tender core can be used for salads or cooked. When the shoot gets a little older, it is best to boil it.

The young flower stalk is a much-favoured item. Remove the sheath and cook it any way desired. If boiled about 20 minutes, they can be eaten like — and taste like — corn on the cob. Nibble the flowers off the tough inner stalk.

When the pollen is being produced, the flowers can be scraped off and used alone, or as a thickening and flavouring agent. The pollen also makes a nice flour that can be used to make bread, biscuits, pancakes and such, but is best sifted if possible. Mix the pollen with equal parts of whole wheat flour. Well dried, the pollen stores, for about one year.

A friend of mine even made bannock from the down, using equal parts down and flour. I thought it would taste like cotton batten, but it was surprisingly good.

The roots can be boiled, roasted or dried and ground into meal for flour. The flowers can be dried for future use either in the hot sun, or in a preheated oven. Store in a closed container.

Here is a famous recipe:

Cattail Flapjacks

– 2 cups cattail pollen (or flowers)
– 2 eggs
– ½ cup evaporated milk
– 1½ cups water
– 1 tablespoon syrup
– 1 teaspoon salt
– 2 cups wholewheat flour
– 4 teaspoons baking powder
– bacon drippings or oil

Beat eggs, add milk, water and syrup. Mix and add dry ingredients, beating well until mixture is creamy. Add bacon drippings. Fry in a hot greased skillet over a campfire. Makes about 20 flapjacks.

The roots of cattail are edible at any time, though they become bitter late in the season. The best tasting roots are those which are going to form new shoots in the spring. The new buds are very tender. The outer peel should be discarded. My favourite way of cooking the roots is to bake them in a fireless pit (see Camas for pit method). The ripe seed can also be utilized as a meal or pressed into an oil.

The down from the mature seeds makes a perfect tinder. Its good insulation qualities lead to its use as stuffing for mattresses or pillows. The Indians often stuffed the down into cradle boards as padding for a child. The down was used by some Amerindians for dressing burns and scalds, and to prevent chafing. It was also used for infant diaper rash much as we use talcum powder. The down was often employed as a menstrual pad, especially right after childbirth. The ashes of burned spikes were sprinkled on infants’ navels to stop bleeding.

The roots were pounded into a jelly-like poultice to be applied on wounds, sores, carbuncles, boils, burns and scalds. The flower heads are a bit astringent and can be eaten to stop diarrhea. The root can be infused in milk to alleviate dysentery and diarrhea. The root of narrowleaf cattail (T. angustifolia) has been used as a tea for kidney stones. The sticky juice is said, in Tom Brown`s Field Guide to Wilderness Survival, to be good to rub on the gums as a novocaine substitute for dental extraction.

The pulp of cattail can be converted to make rayon. Torches can be made out of the stalk, especially with the aid of coal oil or wax mixtures. The long mature leaves and stalks can be easily woven into mats, chairs, bags and many other useful items.